Samantha Fuller has painstakingly merged the words of her father’s autobiography A Third Face with the moving image, marrying words and pictures that were along with music Fuller’s primary colours. Whether it was non-fiction news reporting during his newspaper days, recording the events of World War II from the front lines while serving in the infantry or even narrative filmmaking, Fuller was a natural born storyteller with a nose for a good story. As Samantha explains: “What really triggered his enlistment was that it was the biggest crime story of the century, and instead of becoming a war correspondent which was offered to him, he decided to go on the front lines as an infantry man to experience it the most.”
This tribute to her father has afforded the first time director an opportunity to more intimately understand the filmmaking process that was a significant part of his life. “It is the best schooling that I can get because even though I was raised on film sets and in the film industry, it is very different to being hands-on.”
In conversation with The Reel East Film Festival Fuller took us behind the scenes of the making of A Fuller Life to discuss creating a parallel journey between words and pictures, connecting the passages with the individual speakers, her expectations versus the realities and how she is far from done in bringing Samuel Fuller’s life to the screen.
Sam Fuller was a newspaperman who then went into films. So from the written word to the stills camera and then onto moving pictures, A Fuller Life which is adapted from his autobiography feels like a fitting tribute in which you have taken the autobiography on a similar journey.
Right, and it just felt so natural. I never had to overthink it and once I had the idea that I was going to make this film then there was nothing that was going to stop me. But I really didn't know what would come of it. I haven't been to film school let alone make a documentary, and so I put my own spin on this film in the sense that it is not your conventional documentary format, which also seems so fitting to my father who didn't make conventional films. So just compiling interviews and telling his life story with someone else's narrative didn't feel right. But yeah, it just felt very natural.
Honestly it felt like he was channeling this film, and so much so that despite the fact that many institutions have asked for his archives, there is a reason I left his office untouched for all these years. Somehow I couldn't part with it because it is just a great place for me to go and spend time with him still. It is sort of like a shrine. You walk into the shack and you feel his presence in there to the point that when I enter I still say: "Hey dad.” It is like living in his grave. You see all the research and all of the materials he's compiled over the years and so it's a great set for a film. I don’t think any art director could have put that together because there are so many authentic items and it just felt like he was: okay, let's do this honey. You want to party, come party in the shack. [Laughs]
It was a great celebration in the sense that it took us about a year to get the film made. The biggest challenge was coordinating everybody's schedule, but once we got together in one place it was magic. It had a natural flow to it, but it was difficult to get the cast and the crew to volunteer their time because everyone is very professional, employed and busy. So once we got together it took about a year to get all the shooting done and the average time would be one reader a month. So we basically spent the year of 2012 - the year of his centennial - celebrating that entire year. And honestly, we spent more time having drinks and wonderful meals that my mother cooked every time we had a shoot. We spent more time just having fun and commemorating my dad than actually shooting, and in the spirit of my father I did a lot of shots in one take as I really wanted to train myself in the Fuller film school. So even though we were shooting digitally I felt like it would be a challenge to try and get it right the first time and keep it as natural as possible. I really didn't want anyone to over prepare and so I sent the readers the text, they came in, sat in the chair and we just hit roll.
What was the process behind choosing the different readers and did you have a wish list?
It's amazing how I feel like everyone is very connected to the passage that they read, even though some of them were not my first choice nor my first thought. But it wound up being that those who did get the part just fell into place with it. So that was again another challenge because as I was saying about everyone's timing, there were certain people like Scorsese - just to mention one - that I would have liked to have had because he was a big admirer of my father and he wrote the introduction to his autobiography. But I just couldn't fit him into the schedule and I was determined to shoot this film during 2012. So if someone told me I'd have to wait six months to get it done, I just moved onto the next thought. So everyone was cast in a very subtle manner, but I can give you an example of somone who had not worked with my father directly and the reason why I chose to give him the part.
Since they never worked together and hadn't even met for that matter James Franco is the most disconnected out of everyone. Franco was a very young man the first time he came up to our house. He was eighteen and my father had already passed away. It was during the time he was doing the James Dean part for Showtime. We had a friend in town who was interested in casting him in a feature film. Franco came up and had the meeting with this French director in our home, as they were our houseguest at the time. Franco's eyes lit up when he realised he was in Fuller's house and he knew all about my dad. For such a young man - and a lot of times these days you'll meet these actors who don't have so much film culture - he his a true cinephile, and it was very impressive to see to what extent he knew about my father. So I chose him to be in this film and I wanted to kick-off the film with the youngest actor onboard. But I could also feel a lot of connections between Franco and my father in the sense that he's a renaissance man and so was my dad - fearless and ready to take on any job. Between writing and directing, and while okay my dad wasn't an actor, he was a cartoonist and James is also an artist; a prolific artist and just as open to all the forms of artistic channeling that he can take in. My father was like that too - ready to explore any artistic medium. So that's the reason James was in the film.
The focus was on channeling Sam by which you move towards that feeling, and in doing so the audience get that same sense. It strikes me that you were methodical in your approach.
Yeah, and somehow it was methodical, but it was not overthought. It happened almost magically somehow in which these passages related so well to the reader. It happened to be a couple of years ago that my mother, daughter and myself went to visit the Czech Republic. We went to the Karlovy Film Festival and Monte Hellman who is a dear family friend was one of the guests. We happened to be together at the festival at the same time and so we went out and retraced my father's footsteps when he was in Czechoslovakia during World War II - when he freed the camps. So Monte Hellman was present at the time that we revisited the camps and it also happened magically that I had him. He happens to be my neighbor here in Los Angeles and so he couldn't be more fitting to read that passage about the camps having recently experienced the visit there. Not that he looks like a camp survivor himself, but we were always joking [laughs] and he was: “I know what you really wanted me for that part for.” No, it was because he could relate to that having been there. Everyone just fell into place and it was so gratifying to just get this done despite not even knowing that I'd open it at a film festival. I honestly thought I had to make it no matter where it was going to wind up. Once again it was my film school and so I really didn't know, and it was a real challenge to foresee what was going to happen with it. But it didn't matter to me where it was going to land and it was to my great surprise that the Venice Film Festival took it into their Classics Selection in 2013. This was great because that really boosted the film and kicked it off to a worldwide festival tour that has played everywhere from the Midnight Film Festival in Lapland, South Korea in Jeonju to São Paulo in Brazil. I am thrilled for my dad who I made this film for that it is getting such great exposure. He was an exceptional man and I am not saying that just because I am his daughter. Just seeing him from a more objective perspective he's one of a kind and he was so generous with his stories and willing to mentor anyone he liked. He mentored many young filmmakers and writers, and I think he his just such an inspiration and motivation. You ‘d just want to conquer the world after spending time with him and that's how I grew up every day - fearless and always ready to take on a challenge. And this is the message that I wanted to come through in the film.
Speaking with you I realise how the people closest to the artists or the filmmakers themselves see something so radically different to what we see, and it makes one appreciate the work all the more for its individuality.
I've got to say that I'm passionate and I feel so blessed to have that because it is such a privilege. Not so many people have parents who leave so much behind. A lot of people lose their parents and are lucky to have some photographs and memories, but for me the fact that I have all of his films, the great interviews with him and his journals is such a blessing. I feel so privileged in that sense to be the daughter of someone who would record everything.
Looking back on the experience how did the reality compare to your original expectations?
Oh, it was so much better. Once again I didn't know what I was getting into. I hadn't been to film school, but luckily when I did this I was working with professionals. To be able to direct Billy Friedkin, Wim Wenders, Tim Roth… Everybody put me at such ease and gave me so many tips. Seamus McGarvey who was our main DP is just a master of lighting, and when we discussed about bringing the room to life and trying to shoot as many angles as possible he did such a great job. So I learned everything and in fact right now I am doing my own distribution - I am signing with Criterion and I am doing all my own distribution deals. I am learning from A-Z; from the initial thought to getting it out there. It is the best schooling that I can get because even though I was raised on film sets and in the film industry, it is very different to being hands-on. Every time I would be on my dad’s set as a kid I would really be hanging out at the craft service, with hair and makeup and wardrobe. I'd look at storyboards and look at a distance as my dad would shoot, but I really wanted to stay out of his way on the set. So he never trained me in that sense and even though I had witnessed it growing up, it is a very different experience to actually doing it. I honestly really have a knack for it and I really enjoy the whole process… I love the show. But the business is way more difficult. It takes a lot more psychology than I thought and right now I am in the middle of dealing with the numbers game when it comes to signing distribution contracts, and that's more stressful than anything else.
And looking ahead to the future, what does it hold for you?
What happened also is I had already had the idea of making the film when I started to really dig in deep to my father's archives, to find material I could use for the film. This was when I came upon this box under the desk with over an hundred reels of 16mm film. I wound through them and to my big surprise it was film of him during World War II - just a few seconds here and there of him on film while he was in the infantry. And it was almost like my dad had said: “If you are going to make a film about me then you had better include this footage.” [Laughs] Now is the time to look through this box.
You've seen the shack through the film, but there is draw after draw and stacks and rows of books. There is so much to go through and I am alone in this - I don't have any siblings and it pretty much breaks my mother's heart to go in there. So I am alone in there and it is a huge legacy and it is very time consuming. This is why I have only been doing little dabs at a time when I want to spend time with my dad. I have another job - I am a glass artist and rent a home business. So I didn't have a full time schedule to be able to go into the shack. However, when we started making the film I really put more time aside to dig through the material and that's when I came upon these films. I had them transferred and it's about two and a half hours of him on location scouts and of footage of him during World War II. Now I was only able to include a couple of minutes of this in the film and so I have all these remains of awesome archival footage that he shot with his camera. So I have now started a second documentary that goes a little more in depth into his war experience. We are using the rest of his war footage and tearing it up with readings of his war correspondence that he wrote back to his mother and brother from the front lines. It is called Organized Insanity and I don't know where that is going to go. It could also become a special feature for the DVD release or it'll probably have a little festival life of its own. We'll see what happens with that, but I'm in the midst of editing over three hundred letters and cartoons, wonderful illustrations and the funniest... He was such a great satirical cartoonist and I have such funny sketches of Hitler as a soldier. He lived through every major battle: North Africa, Sicily and D-Day all the way through to the camps and he documented everything in writing through his journals, war letters and cartoons. So I am going to revive all of this material as well.